Wildlife pendulum swings

Despite the loss of acreage and the decline in wild fowl numbers in the region, Auglaize County Pheasants Forever members came out in full force Saturday to continue their mission.

The non-profit organization is dedicated to conserving and expanding the number of pheasants, quail and other wildlife by preserving and expanding habitat through public awareness and education and land management policies and programs.

“From what I’ve seen the amount of wildlife habitat in the county is a little disappointing, but I understand when landowners can rent their land out for $300 per acre and the farmer can pay that rent and still make money with grain prices where they are while the government pays the landowner $125,” former Auglaize County wildlife officer Dave Sheets said during the 23rd annual Auglaize County Pheasants Forever banquet. “It seems all the gains made while I was wildlife officer have been reversed — the pendulum has swung again.

“The places I used to see wild birds, especially in Union Township and Wayne Township, is now all crop land and I don’t blame the farmer a bit,” he said.  “It makes sense economically for what they are doing, but I still am hoping the pendulum will swing again back in our favor — in the meantime we will keep the Pheasants Forever alive and viable to help the landowners when they want to get back into conservation programs.”

Sheets said farmers tell him they do not believe grain prices will stay high forever and government conservation programs will look attractive at some point in the future so there is hope.

He explained government officials also are working with other government agencies instead of farmers to put in smaller tracts of land. Ohio Department of Transportation officials agreed to put a small tract of land along U.S. 33 near St. Marys into wildlife habitat, and the city of Wapakoneta owns a large field devoted to wildlife habitat and wild flowers south of U.S. 33 near the Wapakoneta Water Treatment Plant.

“We are looking at smaller spaces now because the larger acreages are being farmed,” Sheets said. “During my time as the wildlife officer, I saw it go from almost nothing to a large amount of land and then back — the pendulum has swung the other way.

“The number of pheasants and wild fowl are down and it is all tied to habitat,” he said. “A pheasant cannot live in a bare plowed field. It is just that way. I think it will come back when the habitat comes back. That is what this organization is all about — when the habitat returns you will not only get pheasants, you will get quail, you get songbirds, rabbits and deer.”

Biologist Steve Brown, who works with farmers in Auglaize, Mercer, Darke and Shelby counties with their wildlife practices, said he believes farmers and the agricultural conservation programs will be fine this summer, but after Sept. 30 “everything is kind of up in the air.” That is when the current farm bill, which has been extended a couple of times on an annual basis, expires.

“For NRCS (Natural Resources and Conservation Service) and FSA (Farm Service Agency) we should be alright for this fiscal year, but the next fiscal year nobody knows,” Brown said. “The pheasant numbers have not been increasing and what we are really worried about is that with the grain prices right now being so high there is a lot of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) that is ready to roll out as their contracts are about to expire.

“I know in Ohio they are trying to increase the rental rates so that FSA can pay more to be more competitive but it is hard to compete with $15 beans and $8 corn,” he said. “Our attitude is we are probably going to lose some habitat so we want to make the habitat that remains as high quality as we can.”

While high grain prices results in fewer acres in CRP and subsequently fewer wild bird numbers, attendance at the Auglaize County Pheasants Forever banquet is growing.

Auglaize County Pheasants Forever President Jeff Heistan said Saturday’s turnout was the highest in a number of years. The money raised is used to develop and maintain wildlife habitat throughout the county, to conduct a youth deer hunt in the fall and to provide 10 scholarships to students as well as other events and programs.

More than 300 people attended the event which typically generates between $40,000 and $50,000. The Auglaize County chapter is one of the few organizations in the state to eclipse the $500,000 mark during its existence.